Catholic Schools are the center of many communities throughout the nation. But for students at St. Michael's Catholic School, the school is the community, or as one teacher, Brian Johnson put it, “It’s a light in a dark place.”
St. Michael's is located in a region of South Central Los Angeles the LA Times refers to as “death alley.” Known for gang violence, prostitution, and the highest homicide numbers in the county, St. Michael’s little corridor off South Vermont couldn’t be located in a more dismal place. But as former pastor Bishop O’Connell explains, there was no better place for a Catholic presence to be.
“I began as pastor for St. Michael's in 1988 when it was being torn apart by gang warfare. There were thousands of young people’s lives being destroyed by the crack cocaine epidemic,” O’Connell said. “Over the years things got worse with the riots where 60 people were killed during three days of rioting. Many people were leaving South Central Los Angeles, and the Catholic Church, we rushed in.”
As the neighborhood around St. Michael's continued to shift, it became school administrators’ top priority to make it into a safe space. When principal, Anabel Rodriguez, started 16 years ago, this became her top priority,
“There’s a lot of crime around the school. They do kill in our neighborhood. There are shootings. But our students feel safe within their community inside our school.” Rodriguez said. “We’re actually an oasis for our students.”
To enter the school is to escape the chaos of the neighborhood outside, from the concrete walls built around the playground to protect the children from shootings, to the aptly chosen school mascot “the guardians.”
For any student, a Catholic education is a gift, a privilege, and a stepping stone to success, but for the students coming from this neighborhood it’s the promise of a future outside of “death alley.” St. Michael's teacher, Jennifer Botello, says the school is more than just a safe place for the students, it’s a place where they know they are loved.
“A lot of these students are from this community. On a regular basis they are confronted with the harsh realities of where they’re growing up so when they come here they leave that all at the gate,” Botello said. It’s more of a family situation here at the school, they know that they are loved when they get here.”
Principal Rodriguez doesn’t take this knowledge lightly. It’s what motivates her to accept as many students as possible into the school, with or without finances. Currently the school has 307 students. Only 3 can afford the full tuition. Many parents work 2 or 3 different jobs to send their child to this school.
“We have single-parent families. We have students where one of their parents is in jail. We have students where their grandma is in charge of them, and they want to keep them in a safe area,” Rodriguez said. “So we do try to accept every student that we can.”
The students’ tuition costs are supplemented through financial aid, school assistance from Together in Mission or generous donors. Two of these donors and board members are Dr. Gary and Linda Grimm of American Martyrs Parish. Physicist Dr. Grimm was interested in volunteering and was encouraged by his parish priest pushed him to consider offering his gifts at St. Michael’s. He and his wife started tutoring students in math and reading and the experience changed their lives.
“I promise. If you meet the kids, its over,” Linda Grimm said. “You just fall in love with the kids.”
That’s how two Manhattan Beach residents found themselves spending hours and hours each week to devote to the livelihood of this school. They would read books to younger classrooms, donated a lab to the school, and every year Dr. Grimm sponsors students to attend a five-day field trip with him to Starbase. For Dr. Grimm, it is the knowledge changing the course of someone’s future that motivates him.
“If you really want to make a difference in someone’s life, education is the way to get them to fulfill their potential,” Dr. Grimm said. “It’s an escape from both ignorance and disadvantaged living situations.”
For Linda, it’s the belief that this is simply what we’re called to.
“I think we’re called to do it. I think sharing our wealth and our lives and our gifts and our talents is what we’re called to do.”
It’s the magnetism of the starry-eyed, big-dreaming students that draws people to this school, and keeps them there. St. Michael’s teacher Mr. Johnson never expected to be in his tenth year teaching at the school, but he couldn’t leave the students.
“These kids are an inspiration to me, they’re a symbol of hope. They’re the people that are going to change the world. They’re going to make the world a better place,” Johnson said. “And we try to help support that but really we try to give them the power to know that they’re the ones that are going to change the world.”
And herein lies the secret to the success of Catholic schools. For a school like St. Michael's, its great need demands great charity. It demands the unwavering optimism of an Irish pastor who settled into a parish and was determined to transform the community. It requires the selfless giving of administrators and teachers who work for passion and not a paycheck, who work for the students they call a “family.” It calls for the backbreaking labor of parents to offer their children a better life. It needs the charity of strangers in Manhattan Beach who are motivated simply by the knowledge that it must be done.
“The church is a community, and we’re all part of it,” Linda Grimm said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re giving a dollar, or a hundred dollars, or a thousand dollars or whatever you’re giving, it’s participating in something as the body of Christ.”
And it’s this selfless, laboring, stubbornly hopeful “body” that won’t quit on finding the light in a dark corner of the world. Because the light at St. Michael’s is pretty bright.